Film Review: Sample This

We’ve all danced at some time another to the rhythmic “Apache,” even if we didn’t know it, and this highly enjoyable doc reveals the incredibly colorful and variegated tale behind it.

Nothing less than a loose but pretty exhaustive history of pop music in the last 50 years or so, Dan Forrer’s Sample This focuses on the great drummers who’ve kept the beat going from Bing Crosby to today’s hip hop. He frames his film around the story of producer Michael Viner (1944-2009), whose Incredible Bongo Band, comprised of the best percussionists of the day, created the seminal instrumental “Apache,” probably the most ubiquitously sampled record in music history.

Viner had a colorful, huckster-ish life, starting with his first novelty hit, “The Best of Marcel Marceao” (with that curious spelling) consisting of total mime-silence followed by applause. He was one of those fluke geniuses who managed to corral big talent with, in the case of “Apache,” fabulously enduring, unexpected results. Forrer’s doc is densely populated by interviews with those unsung heroes of an age: the bewilderingly virtuosic studio musicians who’ve hung in there long after the stars they’ve worked with, from Sinatra to Presley to Amy Winehouse, crashed and burned. Legendary names like Michael Melvoin, Perry Botkin, Jerry Scheff, Jerry Butler, Robbie King, Mike Deasy and the great bongo-banging Bobbye Hall are interviewed or, if deceased, gloriously evoked.

These music guys also had serious interactions with history, like Viner, whose pal Roosevelt Grier was right there when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated (and who appeared in the outlandish Viner-produced The Thing with Two Heads, his skull grafted onto the body of Ray MiIlland—or was it vice versa?). Mike Deasy, now a born-again preacher after serious drug years, had a connection to Charles Manson and was a friend of producer Terry Melcher, who owned the house were Sharon Tate and friends were murdered.
Although many of these musicians are miraculously hale and hearty—and prove thus in a recent Incredible Bongo Band reunion session, jamming away on the “Hawaii FIve-0” theme—the tale of one of their number, charismatic drummer Jim Gordon, is not only cautionary but horrific. After a blazingly bright career, he bottomed out on drugs and alcohol, became “possessed” by demons and gruesomely murdered his mother, for which he is still serving time.

Through so many of these events, however, the irresistibly funky “Apache” lived on and was rediscovered by DJ Kool Herc in the 1970s, who sampled its drum breaks while spinning music for ecstatically enthusiastic New York dance crowds. As rap and hip hop music rose to the predominance it now enjoys, countless other artists also employed it to juice up their own tracks, and continue to do so. As one pundit puts it here, “There is nothing more hip or hop than ‘Apache.’” Forrer charts the rise of hip hop culture, with its attendant, still extant highlights of “scratching” and break-dancing, with affectionate incisiveness through interviews with Herc, Afrika Bambaata, Melle Mel and Grandmaster Caz, giving his film a really universal appeal to music lovers, whether they’re into rock or rap, and showing how true talent can truly encompass all genres.